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Many years ago, I read a book that I'm trying to recall now. The details are kind of vague, but here's what I remember.

It was set in a futuristic setting, and a couple of kids wanted to get out of the city they were in for some reason. I think, but I'm not sure, that the city might have been underground.

One of them was a bit unusual: unlike most people in their society, she (I think it was a girl) knew how to read. That was a very uncommon skill among them; something that was not needed.

As they made their way towards the exit (there was some definitive "exit" to the city), they were told that anyone could leave if they really wanted to; it's just that no one usually wanted to leave because it was such a perfect place they were living. But when they finally reached the Way Out, they come to a door, and suddenly the characters are confronted with the horrible realization that the reader has been suspecting for quite a while, that they're actually living in a dystopia. The one who can read notices a sign, saying that it's necessary to do [thing] before opening the door in order to stabilize the room beyond, which would otherwise be flooded with poison gas. It's a very simple thing to do, in order to be able to leave safely, but the vast majority of the few people trying to leave don't know how to read...

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    It sounds a little like Logan's run but obviously isn't. – Jim2B Mar 17 '15 at 15:37
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    I'm vaguely reminded of City of Ember where the plot point for escape involves literacy and curiosity about machinery, but there was no poison gas. – FuzzyBoots Mar 17 '15 at 15:56
  • @Sean: My memory of it is a bit vague. It might not have been poison gas, but there was something simple that you had to do before going into the next room, or else the room would kill you. – Mason Wheeler Mar 17 '15 at 15:59
  • Having just watched "The Giver" the parallels are interesting. But that's not it – Mooing Duck Mar 17 '15 at 18:15
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This Time of Darkness by Helen Mary Hoover sounds like a good match. It's about a girl who lives in an underground city. Most people are illiterate and books are discouraged, but she's taught herself to read. She meets a boy who claims to be from outside, and they set out to escape from the city. Her ability to read means she can understand the instructions for getting safely through some areas.

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Phili K. Dick's "The Defenders" first sprung to mind. It's probably one of the first stories about underground arcology dystopias. The theme has been popular in young adult novels for decades.

"This Time of Darkness," for instance, matches a bit of what you're writing.

Dystopian book: inhabitants of an underground city have no books and don't know the war has ended

According to Wikipedia, there are a couple of other similar books, in case that one doesn't quite match your memory.

  • "The City of Ember"
  • "The City Underground"

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